The UAE is restoring a decade of muscular foreign policy

For a decade, the United Arab Emirates has been the most muscular regional player in the Arab world, spreading its petrodollar wealth and military power to strengthen allies and weaken enemies.

But after the coronavirus pandemic hit the Gulf state economy and underscored its links with world trade, his focus was shifting from a robust intervention, including military, to “economic” diplomacy, two people briefed on the strategy change said.

As a result, Emirati diplomats and embassies are judged more heavily for their ability to attract investment in the oil-dependent nation. “We’re thinking about what’s best for the UAE,” a senior UAE official told the Financial Times. “There will be a much bigger focus on the economy.”

It is the latest sign that the pandemic and the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States combine to alter the dynamics of the Middle East and generate an attempted move toward de-escalation after the turbulent years of the Trump presidency.

In tandem with the new directives, the UAE seeks a more active role in dispute mediation, such as that between Sudan and Ethiopia and even India and Pakistan, people say.

The recalibrated strategy marks a significant change for a nation that under the rule of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto head of the UAE, has emerged as the most powerful assertiveness of the Arab world after the popular uprisings of 2011.

After the riots resurfaced in the Middle East, the UAE sought to impose its vision on the region, with Sheikh Mohammed convinced that his state should fill a perceived void of indifference by the United States and take direction to prevent it. rise of Islamist movements and against Iran. influence.

The aggressive approach led to the deployment of thousands of UAE troops in the war in Yemen which became Saudi Arabia’s main ally in an Arab coalition that intervened in the conflict in 2015 to fight against the Houthi rebels backed by Iran.

Fighters loyal to the Libyan government of the UN-backed National Accord are on guard against Khalifa Haftar’s forces, which have suffered a series of defeats after Turkey – the UAE archive – intervened to supports Tripoli government © AFP via Getty Images

He was also one of the main supporters of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. And in 2017, Abu Dhabi was at the forefront of a regional embargo on Qatar, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia imposed after they accused Doha of supporting Islamists and being too close to Iran.

Interventions have raised Abu Dhabi’s profile and influence, as the small oil-rich nation – a major Western ally – has hit its weight. But no one ended up with great success and all the reputational damage inflicted on the UAE.

In Yemen, Abu Dhabi won Washington’s applause for its campaign against al-Qaeda militants. But the Saudi-led coalition failed to repel the Houthis and the UAE withdrew most of its troops in 2019 as regional tensions with Iran escalated and criticism of a war broke out. it unleashed a humanitarian disaster.

In Libya, Haftar suffered a series of defeats last year after Turkey – the UAE’s arch-rival – intervened militarily to support it. The government of Libya supported the UN and ended the lord’s more than one-year offensive of the war against Tripoli. Western diplomats say the UAE has withdrawn its military assets from Libya in recent months. In January, Abu Dhabi followed the direction of Saudi Arabia in lifting the regional embargo on Qatar.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle Eastern expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the UAE had understood that there was “no hard-fought victory anywhere.”

He added that it was logical for his leadership to focus on economic recovery and position itself to take advantage of the post-pandemic world – a theme repeated by UAE officials.

“They’ve tested the proposal that military power can bring hard returns, but it’s not really clear, so they’re adapting,” Hokayem said. “No one knows if there has been a change in leadership mentality. But what you see clearly is the UAE reducing its military participation, reducing its exposure and focusing on what is most strategic in terms. of their own macro-security and prosperity ”.

Elham Fakhro, Gulf Crisis Group analyst, said the UAE had acknowledged that the mood in the region had shifted towards diplomacy with the Biden administration elections and believed it was “time to exploit “. “The UAE does not want to be seen as openly intervening in regional conflicts like Libya, or arming allied actors,” he said.

“But I don’t think they’re moving away from their more confrontational approach. They just want to be smarter on that and that means expanding their efforts in diplomacy and mediation as well.”

The UAE official said the UAE was “proud” of its “successes” in Yemen, citing its successes against al-Qaeda affiliates and halting the Houthis ’advance in the South. “We hadn’t used the military approach long before [and] we have now seen how effective it can be, and sometimes it can’t be, ”the official said.“ We understand the costs – and things beyond our control. ”

Another person briefed on the change said that in addition to the return channel discussions with Iran, the UAE has had more recent discussions to reduce tensions with Turkey. “We want to be friends with everyone – from Israel to Iran,” the person said, citing the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel last year.

The Emirati official said Saudi Arabia was leading the spread in Turkey, adding that “our approach is to see what happens here.” Turkey’s foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia last month as part of efforts to resolve issues between Riyadh and Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that he wanted to strengthen Turkey’s ties with Egypt and the Gulf states.

But Hokayem warned that the apparent move toward de-escalation in the region was “very fragile,” warning: “All the problems are still there and, as we see the limits of coercion under Trump, we now have to deal with them.” the limits of diplomacy ”.

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